The Fine Gael New Politics reform document deserves a close read. There may be details that any one of us might disagree with (e.g. why waste time voting to reduce the President’s term by two years?); there may be other issues we might have liked to have seen included that aren’t (e.g. the proposal to have quotas for women candidates that were blocked by certain sections in the parliamentary party); but what cannot be denied is that this is a detailed (100-page long) and, in places, quite ambitious set of proposals.
One of the most interesting proposals is the promise to establish a citizen assembly (CA) in the first 100 days of government. Actually the most curious aspect of this is just how little attention it appears to have attracted – at least to date – from the journalistic community. Its significance, potentially, is huge. What is envisaged is that 100 Irish citizens will be selected (Note that these are normal citizens, NOT politicians), through a random process, to serve as members of the CA. This is modeled on best practice in Canada (British Columbia, and Ontario) and also in the Netherlands. For more details, see – http://www.isolon.org/CitizensAssembly/Default.htm.
The objective of a CA is to give an opportunity to a group of citizens to have a say over a major policy decision. Like in the Canadian and Dutch cases, Fine Gael’s intention is that this CA should have a say over (1) whether to reform Ireland’s STV electoral system and, if so, (2) what new electoral system should be proposed to the people in a referendum.
The work of a CA breaks down into three main stages. First, there is a ‘learning phase’, a political science boot camp in which the members of the CA are educated about electoral systems: what are there main elements; what are the different types of electoral systems; the pros and cons of one system over another; issues to consider in the design of electoral systems, and so on.
Second, there is a ‘consultation phase’, in which the CA members go out and about the country taking soundings from relevant groups; meeting with other citizens to hear their views. The third, and final stage is the ‘deliberative phase’, when the CA members discuss and debate options and come to a decision. In British Columbia, the CA members opted to replace their British-type first-past-the-post electoral system with the Irish single transferable vote. In Ontario, the CA members also decided to propose dropping first-past-the-post, but this time preferring to replace it with the German mixed-member system. In the Netherlands, by contrast, the CA members decided to stick with the existing Dutch PR-list system.
Once the CA members have decided the matter returns to the politicians. It is, then, crucially important that two things happen. First – assuming the CA decision is to propose a new electoral system – then this proposal must be presented (precisely as worded by the CA) to the electorate in a referendum; it is crucially important that the politicians do not interfere in this in any way. Second, it is very important that in the referendum campaign there are plenty of funds to ensure a proper public education campaign, so as to give all citizens an opportunity to learn enough of the details of the proposal to give the matter proper consideration.
Fine Gael have made an important step today in making this explicit proposal to establish a citizen assembly, thereby giving back power to the citizens of this state in determining how our politicians should be elected. The questions now are: (1) will this promise make it into the party’s manifesto, and (2) if they are actually elected to government, will they actually meet this promise?
They should be encouraged in every way possible….